"My whole belief of taking the streets comes from my military training," he says. "Whenever we would do field operations, it was all about having soldiers with boots on the ground. That was a common phrase: 'We gotta have boots on the ground.'"

When Clark returned to St. Louis at 21, he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. He spent his days delivering furniture for a rental company and his nights partying with friends. During one night of partying, a friend asked him if he had ever read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. He said that he hadn't and went on partying. A week later, he spotted the book on his mother's bookshelf. Bored and curious, he started reading.

"That book transformed my entire life," he says. "I was drinking 40s and smoking weed when I started reading the book, and by the time I got done reading the book, oh, I was on fire for the community. I was ablaze."

"We have got to fight for peace in our neighborhoods. This time we've got to get our civil rights from each other. And when we do that, it's gon' change America. It's gon' change the world," says James Clark.
Jennifer Silverberg
"We have got to fight for peace in our neighborhoods. This time we've got to get our civil rights from each other. And when we do that, it's gon' change America. It's gon' change the world," says James Clark.
Unlike many other academics, Norm White immerses himself in the neighborhoods. He spends his free time cruising north city and county, stopping to talk to residents sitting on porches or walking down the street.
Jennifer Silverberg
Unlike many other academics, Norm White immerses himself in the neighborhoods. He spends his free time cruising north city and county, stopping to talk to residents sitting on porches or walking down the street.

He started volunteering for Better Family Life and grew close with its founder, Malik Ahmed. He stopped delivering furniture and took a position with the St. Louis Public Schools' Role Model program. His job was to find gainfully employed African Americans — lawyers, plumbers, Rams players — to speak at the 68 schools he oversaw.

"I really saw how one conversation, how one interaction, could have a profound effect on a young person," he says.

One of his most frequent speakers was a young St. Louis circuit clerk named Freeman Bosley Jr. Bosley took an interest in Clark and offered him a job as an associate circuit clerk, which he eventually accepted. A year later Bosley ran for mayor, and Clark, charismatic and relentless, handled the campaign's field operations.

Bosley won, becoming the city's first African American mayor, and brought the 25-year-old Clark with him to city hall as an administrative assistant. From that position, Clark worked on Bosley's community-outreach effort— expanding neighborhood and recreational programs and scheduling town-hall meetings. He canvassed north St. Louis and recruited residents into job-training programs. "Basically the same stuff I'm doing now," he says.

It was at city hall that Clark first cultivated his network of soldiers. For instance, he found Willingham, then a high-level drug dealer, playing craps in the projects and hooked him up with a construction gig, his first legitimate job.

After Bosley lost reelection in 1997, Ahmed scooped up Clark for Better Family Life's community-outreach division. One of Clark's first assignments was to bring in people to the organization's job-training program at the newly built MET Center. So Clark — what else? — hit the streets, passing out fliers at every barbershop and nail salon and housing project he could find.

Every enrollment cycle filled.


There is little to no evidence showing that community-mobilization strategies reduce crime. In 1997, criminologist Lawrence Sherman headed a team of researchers at the National Institute of Justice who wrote up a 300-plus-page report for Congress called "Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising."

On the topic of community mobilization, Sherman wrote: "The scientific evidence that communities matter is strong. The evidence that serious crime is concentrated in a very small number of communities is even stronger. But the link between those facts and the design between prevention programs is very thin indeed."

A big reason for this, according to Robert Bursik, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a friend of White, is that residents of impoverished communities are often disillusioned by all the programs that have come in, promising to improve their neighborhoods, and failed.

"There's a sense of abandonment," he says. "If you've got this sense of abandonment, why the hell would you try to change it, because it's not gonna change. Your mom will tell you, 'It's the way it's always been here.' Your grandma will tell you, 'It's the way it's always been here.' So Norm's gonna have to come in and convince these folks that this is the real deal. Now, Norm's got some advantages. He's a project boy from the Bronx. That's a whole lot different than if some white guy, white college professor that had grown up in Town & Country is gonna say, 'I feel your pain, and I know how we can fix it.' Well, everybody can see through that bullshit."

White's background is unusual for an academic. He grew up in the Dyckman Houses on 204th Street, just across the Harlem River from the Bronx. After graduating with a degree in history from Marist College, he spent fifteen years counseling juvenile delinquents before going back to school and getting his doctorate in criminology at the University at Albany-SUNY in 1993.

His approach to research is unorthodox. Academics who study inner-city crime, he noticed, often don't understand the nuances of impoverished communities. Because of the pressure to publish, they tend to drop in, conduct their research and then leave. White, in contrast, immerses himself in the neighborhoods. He spends his free time cruising north city and county, stopping to talk to residents sitting on porches or walking down the street.

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